Florida will hire a top-level administrator to find ways to curb violence and improve medical care at state mental hospitals.
The new position will oversee Florida's three remaining state-run mental facilities, including the flagship Florida State Hospital with nearly 1,000 patients.
Department of Children and Families officials on Tuesday said the change will put one person in charge of monitoring and improving patient care, and will allow DCF to standardize policies at the hospitals it oversees.
The position is part of what the DCF calls a "comprehensive review" of the hospitals, including how they are staffed and how they will operate in the future.
That review is the latest state action following an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune that found escalating violence at the hospitals.
The series — Insane. Invisible In danger. — won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year. It revealed how years of deep budget cuts and layoffs led to chaos on the wards, with dangerous patients allowed to roam the hallways without supervision and staffing levels so thin that sometimes a single employee was left alone to watch over a dozen or more patients.
The state expects to pay the person between $165,000 and $195,000. An advertisement for the position says candidates must have at least 15 years in behavioral health management and at least five years in an executive-level position.
Officials at Florida State Hospital, North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center and Northeast Florida State Hospital will report to the new administrator, who will set guidelines for hiring, staffing and budgeting among the facilities.
The decision to hire a single executive was greeted with enthusiasm from mental health advocates.
"Creating a position like this is a very important step in the right direction," said Denise Marzullo, president of the advocacy group Mental Health America of Northeast Florida. "When you look across the system, one problem has been a lack of common policies and procedures for each of the hospitals. This person has the opportunity to streamline those policies so all of the hospitals are operating under the same guidelines."
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who chairs a committee overseeing DCF, praised Secretary Mike Carroll and said the decision to place a single person in charge of the three public institutions is a promising start to fixing the hospitals.
"DCF has an opportunity to improve how patients get services … and this could be one of the ways that happens," Sobel said Tuesday. "This could be a great start."
Other efforts to improve the hospitals are already under way.
The Legislature gave DCF money to hire as many as 160 full- and part-time new workers, many of whom will start in July. Gov. Rick Scott ordered the hospitals to purchase new security cameras and body alarms for workers. Lawmakers added almost $55 million to the budget for new mental health programs.
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